One of the first questions I was asked during the 70th edition of the world’s oldest film festival on Venice Lido is how good the selection was this time, new Director Alberto Barbera’s second year in command.
This is really an unfair question. Often, not always, the selection depends on the kind of cinema the world makes in that particular year. So the same man at the helm of affairs might not be able to do much if he is handed poor titles.
This has happened at Cannes, which is termed the queen of all movie festivals. This has happened at Venice during the eight long years that Marco Mueller ruled Lido, so to say. But he did – without any doubt – lift the Venice Film Festival literally out of the Adriatic Sea.
Now, to get back to the question, I would think that Venice had some great cinema this year, only that it was dark and depressing, perhaps conveying the gloom and glumness the world is facing today.
Even Lido, the island off mainland Venice where the Festival holds its annual 11-day celebration, appeared quite deserted. The owner of the hotel where I have been staying for 10 years told me that it hardly looked as if a movie festival was on!
Yet, in all the 15 years that I have been there, I found for the first time Indian food on Lido in a restaurant that was till last year a full-fledged Italian pizzeria. It has been taken over by two Bangladeshi brothers, who offered me chicken curry and Basmati rice. Of course, they have kept on their menu the original selection of pizzas and other Italian dishes. So, I would suppose that business is not all flat on the Lido.
The curry meal enlivened my mood, and I was ready to take on the next dark work in an even dark auditorium. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin had Scarlett Johansson playing an alien on earth, who fatally seduces men. Frequently naked, she seems quite confused about her role on this planet, but it was a bone-chilling science-fiction feature that neatly divided critics. The celebrated critic, Derek Malcolm, who was part of The Guardian for 40 years, loved it as did other British scribes. “But you would hate it”, Malcolm told me. Well, but I know the Italian critics despised the film (which unfortunately was shown at Telluride days before its Venice opening – a brazenly unethical act by the smaller festival).
The one movie which completely united the critics of the Lido was Stephen Frears’ Philomena, about an Irish Catholic woman forced during her teen years to abandon her son, born outside wedlock, by the church. Fifty years later, she takes the help of a BBC journalist to try and find her son, adopted into an American family. The movie is full of great lines. Now why would god be angry about someone having sex, which gives you such a wonderful feeling, Judi Dench’s Philomena asks the journalist.
But even Philomena was not exactly a happy film. Venice, this year, was truly into sorrow and despair. Pater Landesman’s Parkland takes you to that fateful November day in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot presumably by Lee Harvey Oswald. At Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where Kennedy was rushed, one saw the anger and frustration of the doctors who tried in vain to save a President whom America loved so dearly.
In David Gordon’s second feature, Joe, Nicholas Cage gives one of his career’s most nuanced performances as an ex-conman in a mood for atonement. He takes a young boy, brutalised by his father, under his wings in a story whose end we quite well know what it will be. (Will Cage clinch the Best Actor Award?)
We saw this kind of relationship also in Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem, where an Israeli secret agent plays father to a teenage Palestinian informant. Strangely, the end is dark both here and in Joe.
While Bethlehem is a political thriller, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves plots eco-terrorism, though there is more dialogue here than hardcore action. Not as minimalistic as Reichardt’s earlier works, Night Moves sags a bit, but manages to present radical violence and its gruesome fallout.
Philip Groning’s German entry, The Police Officer’s Wife, takes us out of public space us into the privacy of a home, where a cop heaps abuses on his young wife, and when the end comes after an unnecessarily long three-hour journey, divided into many chapters, it is simply heart wrenching.
Domestic violence, necrophilia and sexual abuse of one’s own daughter were some of the other subjects that Venice chose to float this summer. Even a joyous guy like Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned Japanese animator, gave us a rather gloomy picture in The Wind Rises. The amazingly detailed animation tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the brilliant aeronautic engineer who designed Japan’s Zero fighters, which were used to destroy Pearl Harbour and in Kamikaze operations. It is also a tribute to poet-novelist Tatsuo Hori, who struggled with tuberculosis.
Perhaps to set off against this cynicism and anguish, Venice – at the beginning of every show -- screened very short clips from its previous festivals. Winston Churchill (not Halle Berry in a Bond extravaganza) in bathing trunks emerging from the sea in front of the main Festival venue on the Lido to thunderous claps from the audiences, who booed when Joseph Goebbels, in a pinstripe linen suit and beady sunglasses, walked into the frame. It was great to watch Akira Kurosawa and Japanese cinema being discovered by the West at Venice when his Rashomon clinched the Golden Lion in 1950. Elia Kazan came in second that year for his A Street Car Named Desire. When one of the clips showed Satyajit Ray getting a Lion for his 1957 Aparajito, there were cheers in the auditorium. Ray is still recognised by a generation which may not have grown on his cinema.
The feel for meaningful films does pass on from era to era, and Venice exemplified it. As one critic wrote, “the future, we’re assured, is in safe hands too. Over lunch with journalists on Wednesday, Barbera, now two years into his second term as festival director, spoke keenly of the ongoing project to upgrade the Palazzo (Festival venue) and its surrounding buildings to welcome more guests; show more movies; host more stars in future.
“The message, warmly but firmly reiterated, was clear: forget your Torontos, your Tellurides, your South By Southwherevers. On this seven-mile sandbar, called Lido, cinema history has been and will continue to be built”.
(The Venice Film Festival will give away its prizes late this evening.)